A few years ago, the Community of Jesus published a little book, Sacred Seeing: Praying with the Frescoes in the Church of the Transfiguration. As we approach the New Year, it seemed like a good opportunity to share this simple guide to praying with the art here in the church, especially for those of you who aren’t able to come and see it for yourselves. Over the next twelve weeks, we will be sharing the meditations from the book. We hope that it helps to enrich your prayer life as 2017 begins!
“Jacob came to a certain place, and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!… Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:10-17)
An ancient practice of prayer recommended by St. Benedict in his Rule, and still widely used today, is called lectio divina—sacred reading. The method requires enough silence, both inward and outward, and enough time spent mulling over and meditating upon a passage of the Bible, that the text eventually becomes a stepping stone to prayer and contemplation. This kind of reading is done not so much for content and knowledge as for insight and interpretation, for it is meant to lead the reader through the words to the God of whom they speak. There, in the presence of God, prayer becomes the only appropriate language.
Something similar can happen with art, and so it is that this little book may be considered a prayer guide for “sacred seeing.” Like Jacob’s dream, art can point us beyond itself, through its visible shapes and colors, to God who is both invisible and present. Like sacred words, sacred art can be a ladder to prayer.
The clerestory walls of the Church of the Transfiguration contain twelve fresco images that depict major events in the life of Christ:
|Epiphany||Entry into Jerusalem|
|Wedding at Cana||Crucifixion|
|Calming the Sea||Resurrection|
|Feeding the Multitude||Ascension|
|Healing the Man Born Blind||Pentecost|
The following pages are offered as one way to spend enough time with these images—to “converse” with them long enough—so that they can lead us to prayer. And “enough time” is probably the most important tool here (along with a Bible, a pen, and piece of paper). The goal is not to get through all twelve images; it is to pray with them. In fact, it may be necessary to return again and again to the same image until it has “said enough” to you.
The shape of each meditation is as follows:
1. First, sit quietly and look at the fresco. The opening questions look only for your initial thoughts and impressions. Breathe. Take the time.
2. Then, slowly read the scripture passage that the image portrays. Don’t be afraid to stop at any word or phrase that calls for your attention, or particularly connects you with the fresco itself. (These readings are taken from the Revised Standard Version, the primary translation that was used to guide the word of all the artists in the Church of the Transfiguration.)
3. Consider some of the thoughts and questions (mostly questions) that are listed. Remember, these are only meant to guide the “conversation” that you are having. In every case, the goal is to listen for what the Holy Spirit may be saying to you through the fresco image.
4. Begin to turn your own questions and answers into prayer. What prayer is the fresco creating in your heart? What is it inspiring you to say to Jesus? A prayer or two is included here, but you may wish to write your own.
5. Finally, a word is offered “from the tradition”—something from an earlier pray-er who contemplated and wrote of the event you are looking at. Something to take with you as you leave.
Reflecting on his own experience with icons, Henri Nouwen once said that it was important for him to look at art with his “heart’s eye.” From that perspective, certain images kept him connected with his experience of love and he found that they helped him to pray when he had no words of his own. Learning to “see” in this way can take a long time. While its primary purpose is to house a community at worship, the Church of the Transfiguration, even from the earliest stages of its design, was envisioned also as a “teaching church,” a space that would proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ even when standing empty and silent. Among the many things that the church teaches us, perhaps it can also teach us to pray.